Issue 5 Evil Winter 2001/02
Bats and Dancing Bears: An Interview with Eric A. Zillmer
Sina Najafi and Eric A. Zillmer
The Rorschach test is the most famous example of pareidolia, the technical term for the ability to find specific images among random patterns. Inkblots did not begin with Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922), however. Leonard da Vinci, Botticelli, and Victor Hugo were precursors in the visual arts, and in 1857, Justinus Kerner had published Kleksographien, a book of inkblot-inspired poems. Alfred Binet was one of many turn-of-the-century psychologists who investigated the phenomenon as a useful psychological test.
The first person to provide a comprehensive analysis of the Nuremberg Nazi records was Molly Harrower. In essence, her main findings from a 1975 paper showed that there was no single, uniform, abnormal personality that could serve to explain Nazi behavior. The reception Harrower received at this presentation led to television interviews, produced a flood of newspaper comments, and reopened a topic forgotten since 1948. In 1978 Bary Ritzler proposed that, as a group, the Nazi leaders were not psychotic and their responses did not resemble those of depressed and anxious non-psychotic patients. Ritzler further commented that the Nazis may have performed like “successful psychopaths” on the Rorschach, that is, opportunistic, but not severely dysfunctional, impulsive, or sadistic. Because of their work on the topic, I asked both Harrower and Ritzler to coauthor The Quest for the Nazi Personality with me.
Absolutely. The Rorschach is not an X-ray of the mind or of the soul as is often the popular opinion, but it can project a picture of the psychology of the person, when administered and interpreted correctly. There seems to be something mysterious about the test because it looks ambiguous, but in the simplest way the psychologist shows the ten inkblots, which are the stimuli, and what we get is really a sample of that patient’s behavior. We then compare that sample of behavior to the norms that we’ve established over many years to determine whether the behavioral sample we’ve recruited using the Rorschach is consistent with any kind of diagnosis.
That goes back to how Hermann Rorschach developed the test. Rorschach was a Swiss psychiatrist who worked at the famous Burghölzli Hospital, which was the Mayo Clinic of 80 years ago. What Rorschach did, which is really ingenious, was to look for an unstructured testing situation for his schizophrenic patients where he might learn something about them that he did not know beforehand. He knew of a game that German kids played where they would look at the clouds and make up things they could see in them. The game would be whether your friend could see the shape as well. There was also another game, which he played as a kid, called “Klexen,” which was just putting ink on a paper, folding it, and saying what you could see. Also significant is that Rorschach’s father was a graphic artist. So, he started experimenting with dozens of inkblots mostly on schizophrenics at his hospital, and he found it was a technique that could be useful.
Early on, Rorschach thought that color could play a role in how people relate to their emotions. So we talk about singing the blues, or seeing red. The colors are sort of an entrée to saying something pathological that the patient might not have wanted to say.
Since Rorschach, the inkblot technique has enjoyed a rich but often controversial history regarding the precise nature of the test’s administration, scoring, and interpretation. This controversy is related, in part, to the developer of the test having died in 1922 at the early age of 38, just a year after the test was published. The test was picked up by a lot of different groups in psychology—ranging from behavioral to very analytic—and so different systems evolved for how to administer the test and interpret it. Over the last 20 years, the Rorschach Inkblot test has been summarized and systematized by John Exner, Jr., in an intensive effort to make the Rorschach technique more objective and empirical. About 90% of psychologists now use the Exner system.
I think the easiest way to do it is to see how the information has been processed and integrated. Does the person take the whole blot into consideration, or are they really interested in details? By the way, one blot response doesn’t really mean anything, but if there’s a pattern that the subject is more comfortable isolating details, then that person is probably more comfortable with the trees and not with the forest. I don’t think that person should be put in charge of a nuclear reactor or national security. Conversely, it could be good if someone is trying to integrate everything, but the information they attempt to integrate should be appropriate. So a good response to a complicated card, like Card10, could be “This is Independence Day in France, this is the Eiffel Tower, with fireworks, ‘Vive La France’!” This response is something that integrates every aspect into an abstraction. A poor response is when an individual tries to integrate the image but it makes little sense. I had a patient who was a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology and went to New Guinea to work on his dissertation, not to return for two or three years, and his advisor was wondering what happened to him. They finally brought him back and we tested him. His response to Card 2 was that it looked like a bear, which it does, and the map of France, which it does, dancing together. But a bear and a map of France can’t dance! He demonstrated what we call “slippage” in his thinking and was later diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Well, to me as a scientist, they are all stimuli, and some of them are more difficult to integrate. There are some blots that are quite simple, like Card 5, which looks like a bat, and over 50% of people say so.
WARNING: The Rorschach images presented in conjunction with this interview are the ones Rorschach published with Ernst Bircher Publishers in Switzerland in 1921. When Hans Huber, an employee of Bircher's, established his own publishing company, he bought the rights to the Rorschach tests. Huber’s company in Bern has held the rights ever since. For reasons of trademark, Rorschach blots seen in popular culture have always been substitute images. According to the US Patent and Trademark Office, however, the copyright for the original Rorschach images has very recently run out in the US. While it is now legal to print these images, looking at them outside the test environment and reading others’ responses to them may affect and render invalid the results of anyone later looking at the images under test conditions. Please take this into consideration before reading the protocols from Göring, Speer, and Eichmann.
Click here to see the images.
Eric A. Zillmer is the Carl R. Pacifico Professor of Neuropsychology at Drexel University and the author of The Quest for the Nazi Personality: A Psychological Investigation of Nazi War Criminals (1995) and a textbook entitled Principles of Neuropsychology (2001).
Sina Najafi is editor-in-chief of Cabinet.
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© 2002 Cabinet Magazine